All the pleasures of genteel English life – the clubs, the trains, the tea – live side by side with the horrors of World War II imprisonment in the tortured skin of Eric Lomax, a geeky-looking railway enthusiast who, in the 1970s, remains a prisoner of his past in “The Railway Man.”
A quarter-century after the war, Lomax finds mental refuge where he always has, in the world of trains. He loves their timetables and tracks and the places they travel. His knowledge of British history is encyclopedic, and early on in the film, as he describes notable facts about the passing landscape during a long train ride through the countryside, his quirky spoutings unexpectedly charm a fellow first-class passenger named Patti. A pretty and outgoing woman, she shares that she is on a trip to celebrate being newly single.
Discreet sparks fly.
Lomax is played by Colin Firth behind gigantic glasses and a fusty mustache, and Patti is Nicole Kidman with a no-nonsense bobbed wig – not-so-clever disguises for two romantic leads destined to start leaving their sensible shoes on the same mat and sharing breakfast biscuits.
Firth brings to Lomax the same barely contained reserve he gave George VI in “The King’s Speech” and Mr. Darcy in the role that defined him. All men are tightly wound and just waiting for the right woman to help free them, and troubled though he is, Lomax falls in love and won’t let Patti go. The two soon are married, and his secrets begin to come to light in frightening ways.
As Lomax battles his demons, Patti’s love never falters. Showing her own postwar resolve, she pries out of Lomax’s friend and fellow POW Finley (Stellan Skarsgård) the story of what happened over there, in the war, in the camp.
“Madness,” is how he describes it.
As it would have in real life, the tone of the movie shifts dramatically from the love that could save Lomax to the senseless brutality that nearly killed him in flashbacks from the war. After he and his fellow soldiers are captured in 1942 by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore, they are put to work as slave labor building the Burma railroad, a grim cosmic karma for the train-loving Lomax. As any student of history knows, the infamous Burma railway, intended to carry Japanese supplies from Bangkok to Burma, became a graveyard for tens of thousands of POWs and civilian prisoners.
Malnutrition and disease took most, but for Lomax the circumstances were even worse. After being found with a homemade radio he built to listen to the BBC, he is beaten and tortured for weeks while being interrogated by a Japanese translator named Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada).
Jeremy Irvine, from the film version of “War Horse,” ably portrays the young Lomax/Firth, dropping 30 pounds to play the starving POW. While the jungle remains a bit too nicely lit, with few scars on the men and no evidence of the mosquitoes who carried the deadly dengue fever, the scenes of brutality are real enough.
Real enough that, when the middle-aged Lomax learns from Finley that his tormentor is still alive, his response is no sure thing.
As Finley recalls, the Japanese told them “real men would kill themselves of shame. We said we would live – for revenge. Now we’re an army of ghosts.”
And so Lomax returns to the place he has never been able to escape.
Many soldiers keep their stories to themselves, partly so they won’t have to relive them, and partly because they think no one would believe them. Lomax’s book and this movie, as well as the upcoming film version of Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken,” about Louie Zamparini, an Olympic runner and U.S. airman who also survived years of Japanese imprisonment and torture, pull those stories out into the light.
The real Eric Lomax died in 2012 at age 93. Zamparini, born in 1917, is still alive.
While “The Railway Man,” like Lomax, is sometimes too reserved for its own good, it tells its story well enough, and it’s about time it was heard.
THE RAILWAY MAN
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: R, for brutal POW camp violence.
The Lowdown: A train-loving British veteran falls in love with a woman who helps him confront his horrific past as a Japanese POW.